Closer Readings Commentary

American Literature Lessons — Nineteenth Century

Cover of  Mark Twain's Sketches published in 1892.
Photo caption

Cover of  Mark Twain's Sketches published in 1892.

EDSITEment offers over 30 lessons on major authors in 19th-century American literature including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephen Crane, Jack London, Kate Chopin, and Walt Whitman.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere — Fact, Fiction, and Artistic License—An interdisciplinary lesson focusing on Paul Revere's midnight ride. While many students know this historical event, this lesson allows them to explore the true story of Paul Revere and his journey through primary source readings as well as compare artist Grant Wood's and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's interpretations of it.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—Students explore the artistry that helped make Washington Irving our nation's first literary master and ponder the mystery that now haunts every Halloween: what happened to Ichabod Crane?

Davy Crockett, Tall Tales, and History—Using the life of Davy Crockett as a model, students learn the characteristics of tall tales and how these stories reflect their historical moment. The lesson culminates with students writing a tall tale of their own.

Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers—We are naturally curious about the lives (and deaths) of authors, especially those such as Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce, who have left us with so many intriguing mysteries. But does biographical knowledge add to our understanding of their works? And if so, how do we distinguish between the accurate detail and the rumor, between truth and slander? In this lesson, students become literary sleuths, attempting to separate biographical reality from myth. They also become careful critics, taking a stand on whether extra-literary materials such as biographies and letters should influence the way readers understand a writer's texts.


Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator—Help your students consider a variety of narrative stances in Edgar Allen Poe's short story, "The Tell Tale Heart," and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

Perspective on the Slave Narrative—Trace the elements of history, literature, polemic, and autobiography in the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave.

From Courage to Freedom: Frederick Douglass's 1845 Autobiography—Curriculum Unit overview: In 1845, Frederick Douglass published what was to be the first of his three autobiographies: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. As the title suggests, Douglass wished not only to highlight the irony that a land founded on freedom would permit slavery to exist within its midst, but also to establish that he, an American slave with no formal education, was the sole author of the work.

Hawthorne: Author and Narrator—Compare the storyteller's voice with that of the writer who was a contemporary of Whitman and Douglass.

American Literary Humor: Mark Twain, George Harris, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Curriculum unit overview: In this three-part curriculum unit, students examine structure and characterization in several short stories and consider the significance of humor through a study of several American writers.

Tales of the Supernatural—Examine the relationship between science and the supernatural in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the "horror stories" of Hawthorne and Poe.

Critical Ways of Seeing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Context—By studying Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and its critics with a focus on cultural context, students will develop essential analytical tools for navigating this text and for exploring controversies that surround this quintessential American novel.

Letters from Emily Dickinson: 'Will you be my preceptor?'—Curriculum Unit overview: Long perceived as a recluse who wrote purely in isolation, Emily Dickinson in reality maintained many dynamic correspondences throughout her lifetime and specifically sought out dialogues on her poetry. These correspondences-both professional and private-reveal a poet keenly aware of the interdependent relationship between poet and reader.

The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Courage—In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane presents war through the eyes and thoughts of one soldier. The narrative’s altered point of view and stylistic innovations enable a heightened sense of realism while setting the work apart from war stories written essentially as tributes or propaganda. Use the audiobook recording below along with the text and this lesson plan. 


The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism—The Red Badge of Courage’s success reflects the birth of a modern sensibility; today we feel something is true when it looks like the sort of thing we see in newspapers or on television news. Use the above audiobook recording along with the text and this lesson plan. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper": Writing Women—Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written during this time of great change. This lesson plan, the first part of a two-part lesson, helps to set the historical, social, cultural, and economic context of Gilman's story.

Crane, London, and Literary Naturalism—Heavily influenced by social and scientific theories, including those of Darwin, writers of naturalism described (usually from a detached or journalistic perspective) the influence of society and surroundings on the development of the individual. In this lesson plan, students will learn the key characteristics that comprise American literary naturalism as they explore London's "To Build a Fire" and Crane's "The Open Boat."

Investigating Jack London's White Fang: Nature and Culture Detectives—In White Fang, Jack London sought to trace the “development of domesticity, faithfulness, love, morality, and all the amenities and virtues.” In this lesson, students explore images from the Klondike and read White Fang closely to learn how to define and differentiate the terms “nature” and “culture."

Jack London's The Call of the Wild: "Nature Faker"?—A critic of writer Jack London called his animal protagonists "men in fur," suggesting that his literary creations flaunted the facts of natural history. London responded to such criticism by maintaining that his own creations were based on sound science and, in fact, represented "… a protest against the humanizing' of animals, of which it seemed to me several 'animal writers' had been profoundly guilty." How well does London succeed in avoiding such "humanizing" in his portrayal of Buck, the hero of his novel, The Call of the Wild?

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: No Choice but Under?—In this curriculum unit (and lesson 1), students will explore how Chopin stages the possible roles for women in Edna's time and culture through the examples of other characters in the novella.

Knowledge or Instinct? Jack London's "To Build a Fire"—As a man and his animal companion take a less-traveled path to their Yukon camp, they step into a tale of wilderness survival and dire circumstances in this excellent example of American literary naturalism by Jack London.

Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"—The harrowing adventure of four men fighting for survival after a shipwreck is chronicled by Stephen Crane in "The Open Boat." Students learn about narration, point of view, and man's relationship to nature in this classic example of American literary naturalism.

Stories in Quilts—Quilts can be works of art as well as stories through pictures. They also tell a story about their creators and about the historical and cultural context of their creation through the choices made in design, material, and content. The video below features famed documentary film maker Ken Burns discussing the stories that quilts tell. 


Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy—Walt Whitman sought to create a new and distinctly American form of poetry. His efforts had a profound influence on subsequent generations of American poets. In this lesson, students will explore the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" by reading his poetry and prose and by examining daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. Next, students will compare the poetic concepts and techniques behind Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" and Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again," and will have an opportunity to apply similar concepts and techniques in creating a poem from their own experience.

Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe—Clues to Walt Whitman's effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse may be found in his notebooks, now available online from the American Memory Collection. In an entry to be examined in this lesson, Whitman indicated that he wanted his poetry to explore important ideas of a universal scope (as in the European tradition), but in authentic American situations and settings using specific details with direct appeal to the senses.